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Do interracial college roommates reduce prejudice?

July 19, 2009

The New York Times ran a story focusing on this question today, which I found via Angry Asian Man. (thanks!)

This caught my interest for a few reasons, but especially because three of my roommates were women of color over my four years at BC. I ended up living with each of them for different reasons, and I didn’t really know any of them before we ended up together, but I look back on all of those living situations as great experiences of friendship.

My first year, I was assigned to a triple, and one of my roommates was Korean-American. Especially because her dad was the pastor of a Korean church, she was extremely involved in the Korean-American community in her hometown, and found her closest group of friends with the Korean Students Association (KSA) at BC. We didn’t spend much time together outside of the room, but we grew very close over our year of living together, thanks to a shared commitment to both faith and academics, as well as plenty of late-night chats.

Sophomore year, we split up for housing; she lived with friends from KSA and I lived with my three best friends from my first year, who were all white. We remain close friends, and despite our distinct friend groups continued to meet up throughout college. The following year, coming back from a semester abroad in Cambodia, I moved into an apartment with a friend, but my direct roommate was a Japanese exchange student who I had never met before. We had a lot of fun together; she was extremely curious about my passion for a country so close to her home (relatively speaking!) and I loved hearing about her life in Japan, as well as her daily surprises at US culture. (“Why does everyone here say, ‘Oh, let’s get together!’ if they don’t mean it?”)

In my senior year, my direct roommate was a biracial woman who had grown up with her white mother in a predominantly white town in western Massachusetts. We didn’t talk too much about race, except for her to share stories about the frustrations of dealing with racism even within her own family. We shared a group of friends (they had met while I was abroad) who were all white, so being her roommate did not increase my exposure to other students of color on our campus.

The UCLA study referenced by the NYT article found that white students living with Asian-American students actually tended to walk away from the rooming experience with more prejudice, rather than less, which was the opposite of every other racial pairing in the study. The researchers concluded that this difference was because Asian-American students tend to be more prejudiced than any other racial group; prejudice begets prejudice, and the characteristics of Asian-American students would theoretically rub off on their white roommates. From my reading of the study, the methodology seems sound (please comment if you find flaws in the methodology of conclusions of this research!), but my experience was very different. My Asian-American roommate was open and warm; she invited me into her life, and took part in activities that I was involved with, including activism for Northern Uganda.

How did these experiences impact my growth and development through college? I’d be hard pressed to pinpoint an “aha!” moment that resulted in a changed perspective on race; however, my college experience would have been very different were it not for the experiences of living with these women.  As Kwame Appiah writes in Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, just being around people who are different from you changes your perception of what is normal. For me, I think that having intimate friendships with women of color slowly challenged notions of whiteness as normal and unbiased, which pushes people of color into the role of “other.” There has been a lot of talk about this recently, with the nomination of Judge Sotomayor. As Berneta Hayes writes,

Having to deal with the fact that the brown and black world sees them as white people, rather than just people (as whiteness is supposed to be seen as the norm of humanity), is seemingly too much for white people to handle. The reality of their race creates a whole existential crisis in white folks. This shit is funny to me, as I watch white people suffer with the realization that they too have a race and that the notion of being an individual (devoid of a racial culture) that is so embedded in the ideology of whiteness is nothing short of an illusion, as I think, “Karma is never fun.” Yes, Karma. The very group that created the notion of race in order to categorize and, thereby legitimate their oppression of, non-European “others” (in order to grasp their own identity, many cultural critics would suggest, a claim I don’t deny but one which I think completely lets whiteness off the hook) are the very people who suddenly find themselves oppressed by that notion, race, by the fact that they are also categorized as “other” by non-whites.

Reading Hayes’ entire post, which centers around the request from some of her white friends to “transcend race” within their personal friendships with her, struck a chord with me. I never made the same request of my roommates; it would have been weird in the context of our relationships, because race was never a major topic of conversation. Nevertheless, I do not think I ever fully considered the power dynamics inherent to two women, one white, one of color, sharing a living space in college. I’m extremely ashamed to admit that, in part because of how it reveals my ignorance, but much more deeply, because I’m sure that at times my refusal to acknowledge my power was hurtful and oppresive to women that I love.

Chipping away at my racism and coming to terms with my privilege is hard work, and no person of color should have to tolerate my prejudice, nor be my teacher, while I educate myself and try to figure it out. Despite that, I was fortunate enough to live with three amazing women of color over my years at BC, whose presence, patience, and friendship have left a lasting impact on me.

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